WASHINGTON—They came to the ballroom to deal in the grim business of ideas. Stems remained unwound, barns unburned, and roofs unraised. The annual Ideas conference sponsored by the liberal Center for American Progress was dedicated to sober dialogue on serious issues. Several speakers—notably Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Bernie Sanders, whose presence itself at a CAP event was remarkable—made a try at it, but it was a crowd that came to listen and not to cheer.
The contrast with the annual three-day hedge fund hellion-fest that is CPAC couldn’t have been starker.
And, for all the punditspeak abroad in the land about how Democratic candidates shouldn’t run merely against the current president* of the United States, hardly anyone mentioned that worthy. Even Tom Steyer, who currently is running a billboards-and-commercials campaign to impeach him, referred to him only obliquely during a panel on the climate crisis. This was an earnest gathering of earnest liberals. The contrast with the annual three-day hedge fund hellion-fest that is CPAC couldn’t have been starker.
Whether the Center planned it that way or not, the entire day was a living refutation of the notion that all the Democrats have in 2018 is to be against the current president*. Almost all of the speakers, and every one of the panels, was dedicated to responding to the longterm conservative project that is now reaching its fruition in the Congress, in the courts, and even in the Executive Branch, if not necessarily in the Oval Office. It was about deregulation, and not about pussy-grabbing. It was about healthcare and criminal justice reform, and not about Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels.
Even Sally Yates, one of the first heroes of the Trump Era, talked more generally about corruption than she did about the person who might be at the center of an ever-expanding web of it.
“I am actually optimistic,” Yates said. “We have a special counsel and the rule of law is working the way it’s supposed to work. The question for me is what are we going to do at the end of this administration? This cannot be the new normal.”
At last! A voice of hope that the Republic is going to come through this historical malignancy at least partly intact. Someone is planning for a future without the early morning spittle Tweets.
Instead of endless slanging against the incumbent, the damage he has done—and that he continues to do—largely was subtext. Sanders, who, according to the program, was supposed to speak on criminal justice reform, instead gave a modified version of the stump speech he’s been giving for three years—although he did mention that, instead of throwing people in jail for weed, we ought to be sending some Wall Street types up the river. Speaking on the subject of mental health, Congressman Joseph Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, only mentioned the president* in connection with the damage his plutocrat’s budget has done in that area. Kennedy told a heartbreaking story of the woman who, when he was a local prosecutor back in the Commonwealth (God save it!), asked him to keep her opioid-addicted veteran husband in jail because they couldn’t afford to get him treatment anywhere else.
“It’s no secret,” Kennedy said, “that we’re at a defining moment in American healthcare, and what I ask of the powerful voices that are gathered at these tables is that you use your own platforms to help remedy this profound injustice because our fight for universal healthcare is for a mother with Stage IV breast cancer and a daughter with schizophrenia. It’s for young men with sickle-cell anemia and a grandfather with depression. It is for anyone who is aching, who is hurting, that is broken or ill—whether their wounds are ones you can see, or the ones you can’t.
“And let’s be clear about one thing—that veteran and that little girl were left behind long before Donald Trump came into office. He is certainly not helping. But he did not write those stories, either. Our country did. For generations, we have underinvested, or outright ignored, mental illness. Today, 55 percent of the counties in our country do not have a single practicing psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker…Our healthcare system is a reflection of who we are. We are judged, not by how we treat each other in times of ease, but how we care for a neighbor in their time of deepest need. When we are broken, when we are sick, when we are helpless and desperate, and more vulnerable than we can ever imagine. That’s when it matters.
“We will pay attention to the margins, to the details, to the people and the places where our healthcare system has consistently fallen short, the quiet corners that are far too often casualties, to a healthcare conversation too often driven by politics and partisanship. The mother with bipolar disorder and trying to care for her three kids, the student on the threshold of graduation, paralyzed by anxiety, the survivor of gun violence with PTSD, and the transgender soldier battling depression. The wounds that we will not always see. The illness we do not always recognize. The pain that cuts and debilitates and devastates all the same.”
“And let’s be clear about one thing—that veteran and that little girl were left behind long before Donald Trump came into office.”
This is the kind of thing that is beyond the easy horse-race punditry. Whether it will sell in a nation grown meaner, and one where meanness is rewarded and celebrated, remains an open question. But it is a way to talk about an issue to that country, just as was that remarkable moment earlier when, in a conversation with journalist Jamelle Bouie, Doug Jones, the new Democratic senator from Alabama, talked about the new memorial in Montgomery dedicated to the victims of lynching and extrajudicial violence.
“The Memorial is a much-needed acknowledgement of a dark part of our history, and when people see the stories,” Jones said. “It’s one thing to just walk through the Memorial and see the hanging fixtures. It’s another thing when you actually read through and read how and why people were lynched—women who were lynched simply because they’d complained about their husbands’ being lynched, and for just no reasons at all. You see what we have come through.
“I think one thing people will take away is that, in this modern day, you cannot fathom why someone would be hanged like that in a public square, and if they think long enough about it they will understand that a lot of that hatred, that prejudice at that time, has still sifted through and formed the basis of our criminal justice system.”
That straightened me right up, I’ll tell you that. A white Democratic senator from Alabama, albeit one that got justice three decades later for the four little girls blown up at their Birmingham church in 1963, tracing the bloody line of history from lynching to Philando Castile, killed by a police officer, from the crowds celebrating beneath the strange fruit in the trees to the people who enable and quietly celebrate the grinding up of minority lives in the criminal justice system of the 21st century. Agree or disagree, but, dammit, it’s a way to talk to the country.